PPF-PA Member and custodial worker reflects on pandemic working conditions and organizing for our survival

By Chris, PPF-PA Member

I am a custodian at a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and therefore, I am an essential worker. I work in the residential dorms. It’s hard to put this whole year into order, so much has happened. So many of my coworkers came down with Covid-19. Some were very ill, and are still suffering the repercussions. Others bounced back ok. Some lost family members. Many of my immigrant coworkers can no longer send money back home because of the inhumane policies of the U.S. ruling class towards their countries of origin.

It’s hard to say what all the impacts have been on the workers at the college, because the institution has not bothered to keep track. Although there is a system for regular Covid-19 testing of students and faculty, testing for our department has been sporadic and random. It’s almost like every now and then they pull a name out of a hat. The college, which constantly touts their “diversity & inclusion,” does not include custodial staff on the online Covid-19 Dashboard they put out to track daily cases, despite the fact that custodial and trades staff are the workers who have been on campus daily throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, the custodial department is the most diverse on campus, employing people from Cuba, Nepal, Ethiopia, Mexico, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic & the U.S. But to the college administration, diversity & inclusion is all about the show, the facade. 

The list of grievances about how the college has mistreated workers during Covid-19 is long. In January 2020, students were arriving back to campus from all over the country and internationally. After we custodians had already been back in the student dorms, the local paper printed an article about our school having students in quarantine and using special bathrooms in the dorms. This was news to us. The administration showed blatant disregard for the custodians by not communicating with us directly about any Covid-19 protocol for returning students or safety concerns for staff, and even now we continue to get important information that is relevant to our jobs and safety after the fact.

Every once in a while some senior staff and a human resources person will call a meeting with the custodial department.  Most of the senior staff don’t even come to these meetings in person, while we go to work on campus every day. They call in over zoom and are projected up on a huge screen, looming down upon us. These meetings are supposed to be an opportunity for us to explain what’s going on in our department and to raise important issues like, “Why were our healthcare contributions raised in the middle of a pandemic? My co-pays on my meds have doubled and my doctor visits too!” or, “What happened to the sliding scale health care contributions system that we were told was being considered?” But we only get insufficient answers, or no answers, and are left in the dark. It is not a transparent, participatory, or equitable process, like the ones we have in PPF-PA, built on the foundation of our human rights principles.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get by on what I earn where I live because our city is in the middle of another kind of pandemic: gentrification. If my landlord chooses to jump on this train and raise my rent, there will be nowhere I could possibly afford to move in my community. I still have a job and I am thankful for that. I actually like my job. I like physical labor. What I don’t like is feeling like I don’t matter, like I’m disposable. Not important enough to be included in the conversation about issues that affect my life and my safety.

They show us we are disposable to them by denying us hazard pay for working on campus while everyone else stays home. I even called Governor Wolf’s office to confirm that we should be eligible for hazard pay, but Human Resources has still ignored my questions. To make matters worse, I’m on a wage freeze. They stopped our retirement contributions. When we went in to work over the winter holiday to clean the dorms while the students were away, the college had turned off the heat in the buildings because “no one” was there. We are there! We are someone. We were trying to work and we were freezing. Another time, when the school was shut down for snow, the boss asked me to go in because I live within walking distance. When I saw my paycheck, those hours were paid as straight-time, not overtime. I questioned Human Resources through email, and they said “Ask your supervisor.” His answer? ”This is the way it’s done.” We have no meaningful way to address these issues. Whenever we raise questions or grievances, the boss says things like,”We have to be careful, they could outsource us.” 

And the response of the college to the Black Lives Matter protests this year?  Embarrassing. They rebranded the campus police by getting new uniforms for Police & Safety Officers, and posted an article on their website calling it “Friendlier Look”. Meanwhile, the custodial staff were not given uniforms this year, with no explanation of course. These are the repeated slights that add up, and that make you ask, “Do their words match their behaviors?” No, not the powers that be at this college.

The good news is, I found Put People First! PA. Being part of this organization is helping me to channel my anger and energy and to focus on solutions. It’s opening my mind to different ways of thinking, to ask questions like “Where do we go beyond the protest?” All my life I’ve been out there in the streets raising hell all over this country, but I haven’t seen real change or felt part of something lasting. I’m coming to understand that you have to get organized, that it is the collective that will bring any lasting change.

I’m still not completely sure how this all works, but I am learning. And I am excited for that! I welcome the political education that is so central to everything PPF-PA does. Sometimes it can be painful when illusions are shattered, but I want truth. I recently joined the statewide Projects of Survival team, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to join that team. We will be studying the history of several mutual aid groups to get a clearer understanding of what works: how we can organize and build our movement by helping people with their immediate needs, while at the same time inviting them to join us in fighting to change the system that keeps us in need. This will help us all the most in the long run, and this is what Put People First! PA is all about.

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